Saturday, November 20, 2010

Tim Brookes' "Endangered Alphabets"

Tim Brookes' books include A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow (one of the Top Travel Books of 2000–the New York Times and Booklist), Guitar: An American Life (one of the Best Books of 2005–Library Journal), and Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Endangered Alphabets, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Endangered Alphabets consists mostly of a photograph of a piece of wood.

The piece of wood—more accurately, an inch-think slab of Vermont maple--is irregularly-shaped, sports a fair number of worm-holes, and is inscribed with a chain of what appear to be symbols.

Some look like letters; some look like mathematical symbols. The whole effect is very odd. The rough-cut nature of the wood, and the fact that these marks trail unevenly across the board, rather than being arranged in neat horizontal rows, make the whole ensemble look primitive—yet these marks are clearly man-made and demonstrably imply meaning. It’s like looking at the verbal equivalent of Stonehenge: it clearly means something, but what? Or maybe a crop circle—the fact that some of the signs are apparently mathematical makes it all seem eerie, almost alien. It is, in fact, two sentences in the endangered North African script known as Tifinagh.

By falling midway through the book, page 99 just happens to lie within a sixteen-page folio of photographs, and as such it unites both Endangered Alphabets, the book, and the Endangered Alphabets Project, a series of carvings that commemorate and preserve more than a dozen of the world’s writing systems in danger of extinction.

The whole thing started with the carvings. I got it into my head to carve Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood“) in boards of Vermont curly maple to draw attention to the fact that the world’s unique writing systems are vanishing even more rapidly than the world’s endangered languages.

Once I started carving the Alphabets, though, I started noticing that seeing the same two sentences in such different scripts raised all kinds of questions about writing itself: how it was first conceived, how it developed, how it spread from culture to culture, how it was affected by developments in technology and vice versa, how it expressed not only meaning but individual character, cultural assumptions, even the surrounding environment. These insights, along with research into the Alphabets themselves, came to make up the book Endangered Alphabets.

Tifinagh was little more than a curiosity to me until I came across online photographs of the wall of a cave deep in the Sahara desert.

The site is called the Wadi Matkhandouch Prehistoric Art Gallery, near Germa in Libya. It's startling to find any evidence of human presence in such an inhospitable place, so far from what we think of as civilization. And this meandering strand of symbols occurs in the same set of rocks and caves as an incredible array of carvings of animals: giraffes, lions, crocodiles, elephants, ostriches, two cats apparently fighting.

This twisting strand of language looks so old and so deep it might just be the DNA of writing. Oh, and did I mention that the symbols or letters are in such a strange and vivid red pigment that they look as if they've been written in blood?

It’s like a missing link, the verbal equivalent of the famous prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux in southwestern France. Written language was here, it says (and in other sites, too, such as the one between Tamanrasset, chief city of the Algerian Tuareg, an oasis high in the Ahaggar Mountains, and Djanet, deep in the desert), long before anyone thought to write in straight and level lines.

The individual letters have the same combination of angular purpose yet prehistoric crudity that challenge the sense at Stonehenge. Something is being born. It is a defining moment in human intellectual history: not just representation, a panorama of hunting, but early, early, unbelievably early symbolism. It’s as if we’re looking at the invention of meaning itself.
Visit the Endangered Alphabets Project website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue